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MANILA, Philippines - (UPDATE 4 - 5:32 p.m.) The loss of 19 Army men in a clash with Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters in Basilan has ignited a debate between proponents of an all-out war against the rebels, and those who maintain that the only way to end the decades-old conflict in the south is through a negotiated settlement.
President Benigno Aquino III has rejected calls to mount an offensive against the MILF, saying “no one benefits from war,” even as he acknowledged the need for “huge changes to ensure that our armed forces are not overcome by threat groups.”
But the President's stance appears only to have made those urging retaliation more adamant, especially after more MILF attacks Thursday night, this time in Zamboanga Sibugay, that killed seven soldiers and policemen and brought the government death toll in the 26 in just three days.
An August meeting between Aquino and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo raised hopes for peace but that optimism has evaporated and opinion polls show about 7 out 10 Filipinos favor an offensive.
Among those who have proposed military action is former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who himself launched an all-out war against the Moro rebels in 2000, and now says this is the only way to deal with the MILF, his son Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, and his former National Police chief, Senator Panfilo Lacson, who said, “It’s time for PNoy to do an Earp.”
“Peace in Mindanao cannot be achieved unless a tactical victory is attained first by the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines),” Lacson said.
"It is time to untie the hands of our soldiers to fight the MILF on equal terms and not be handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit," he added.
Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile, too, has suggested scrapping the peace talks and going on the offensive.
At the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City, TV 5 reported that soldiers waiting to meet the remains of 15 of their fallen comrades made no attempt to hide their anger and the overwhelming sentiment was for the deaths to be avenged.
Army spokesman Colonel Antonio Parlade said soldiers' morale was low because they could not go after the MILF gunmen.
Radyo Singko reported that a brother and fellow military officer of 2nd Lieutenant Jose Delgin E. Khe, one of four junior officers who died in the clash, is angry at the government for not doing more to get the MILF.
Former Marine colonel Ariel Querubin, who holds a Medal of Valor, the highest military combat award, and who saw extensive action in Mindanao, said it would be better if an existing ceasefire agreement with the MILF is scrapped as he noted that Tuesday’s violence in Basilan was but the most recent of a series of similar incidents.
The ceasefire was agreed on in 2004, when Malaysian-brokered talks resumed.
However, another former soldier, Senator Gregorio Honsan, who led several coup attempts against the late former President Corazon Aquino, the incumbent’s mother, weighed in on the side of peace.
“We shouldn’t give up on the peace process,” he said in a statement released Friday.
At the same time, he said “there should be a long term comprehensive peace policy in place,” noting that, “every time we go into peace talks, it just becomes a vicious cycle of: peace talks, then violation of the peace talks, then encounters, then peace talks again.”
Honasan suggested the revival of a peace policy paper drafted by the late Haydee Yorac during the term of former President Fidel Ramos, when, he said, “we had six years of peace … and that included the Left, Right, RAM (Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabayan, the group he led) and other groups.”
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago also urged people to respect the peace process, although she stressed that MILF fighters involved in Tuesday’s incident be charged in court.
In Manila’s Quiapo district, Muslims gathered at the Golden Mosque at noon Friday to pray for peace in Mindanao and said Aquino’s decision not to wage war was the right thing to do.
Political and religious leaders in Mindanao also urged calm, with Basilan Bishop Martin Jumaod saying an all-out war would “just create more problems and worsen the situation.”
House Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Ma. Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, for her part, said the military and police should relentlessly pursue their law enforcement mission in Basilan province but, at the same time, stressed that the deaths of the 19 soldiers should not hinder the resumption of peace talks with the MILF.
Salazar suggested that Tuesday’s incident be discussed by the government and MILF peace panels, who are scheduled to meet again at the end of the month.
“Our sympathy (goes) to (the) martyr soldiers who gallantly died in the field of battle. Let us not make their deaths go in vain,” Salazar said.
Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, a native of Cagayan de Oro City, called on the MILF to consider a permanent cessation of hostilities. “I beg our rebel Muslim brothers to consider adopting the example of Basque separatists in Spain who have decided to forego violence after many years of fighting,” he said.
“The war in Muslim Mindanao has already led to so much violence and bloodshed for over four decades,” Pimentel noted.
“The conflict is not just between the government and armed rebels. It has not only cost many lives on both sides but also displaced many innocent civilians and impeded efforts to end poverty and bring about social and economic development in Muslim Mindanao,” the senator added.
“It is time for them, I think, to go the route of peace instead of armed struggle in their search for a just resolution of their grievances,” Pimentel said.
In a rare show of approval, an activist lawmaker lauded President Benigno Aquino III’s decision to ignore calls for all-out war against the MILF but, at the same time, challenged him to back his words with “concrete actions on the peace process.”
“Aquino showed political conviction rarely seen. We hope that he remain steadfast not to be swayed by the military line of thinking in dealing with rebels with legitimate causes, both with the MILF and the NDF (National Democratic Front),” Bayan Muna Representative Teddy Casiño, who heads the leftist Makabayan Coalition in the House of Representatives, said.
He pointed out that “past negotiations on peace have been sabotaged with the executive buckling under pressure from the military.”
“His mother, Corazon Aquino unsheathed the sword of war against the Bangsa Moro people and the New People’s Army but ended with priests and Muslims getting killed. Perhaps the son learned his lesson from that,” he added.
The lawmaker also said the Aquino government needs to revise its “three-in-one proposal” of socio-economic reconstruction, peace accord and acknowledgment of the historical conflict.”
“The proposed reconstruction is really development aggression using PAMANA (Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan Program), oil and gas exploration, foreign projects and the government’s own vested interests in power plants. The proposed Bangsamoro Commission is merely institutional bureaucracy like the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao),” he said.
He added that the problem is the government’s propensity to undermine and undo all previous agreements.
“The same with the government’s stance on the NDF, as in the case of The Hague Joint Declaration and the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), refusing to release prisoners as part of its obligation,” Casiño said.
“We fully support the Bangsamoro people’s right to self-determination and urge the Aquino government to pursue peace. We urge all parties to go back to the negotiating table and respect agreements,” he said. (with a report from Reuters)